Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
A CARIBBEAN BLEND
The culture of the Lesser Antilles is bursting with vitality, all due to the rich social mix of people living here that the French Antilleans call créolité.
Almost everyone in the Caribbean islands is, in some sense, a stranger. Not just the tourists, of course, or the wealthy expatriate communities, the Europeans and North Americans who have opted for a tropical idyll. But also the “locals” who, although they and their ancestors may have been born in the Caribbean, are likely to have their roots in a different continent.
Demonstrating the art of basketry in Antigua.
Geoff Howes/Antigua & Barbuda Tourist Office
The modern-day Caribbean is peopled by the descendents of African slaves, Indian and Chinese laborers, European colonists, and Middle Eastern traders. Even the Caribs originated from the great rivers and deltas of the South American mainland.
Many of today’s people have ancestors who arrived in chains after being crammed into suffocating ships for weeks on end. The great majority came against their will, snatched from another life and brutally transplanted into a strange new world.
These small islands are essentially rural in character. With a few exceptions most island capitals are like small market towns, picturesque but parochial. The younger generation is growing up with television and the internet but a sense of national identity remains linked to the land, and traditional, rural festivals are still celebrated. It is tempting to regard the islands as an earthly paradise, yet it is a distortion, for their history is of slavery and colonialism. Even now poverty forces people to migrate. This tension between the people and their history is captured in the works of many Caribbean writers, particularly, perhaps, in the poetry of Derek Walcott of St Lucia.
And yet their descendents have stayed, and many have prospered. Slavery continues to cast a shadow over the region and is held responsible for all manner of economic and social problems, but the contemporary Caribbean wastes little time on nursing historic grudges. On the contrary, a strong and positive sense of identity, both national and regional, has grown out of past injustices, and most people in these islands look forward rather than back to a tortured history.
Maintaining those family ties with warmth and humor.
Caribbean societies are by their very nature a mix of different people and cultures. The word “creole”, originally referring to a European-descended settler born in the Americas, has come to signify this combination of cultural influences, blended into a distinctive whole. Languages, cooking, clothing, and architecture all carry the term, which, as in New Orleans, implies a highly spiced fusion of ingredients.
Dominoes is more than a social event - it is taken very seriously, and there is even a campaign for it to become an Olympic sport.
A few sharp cracks and the group of men huddled over the small table leap to their feet with a roar of jubilation. Dominoes may appear to be a sedentary game, but it is far from quiet and peaceful. It is played very fast and a game is over in minutes. The dominoes are often slammed hard down for maximum effect and the atmosphere can be tense.
Played by young and old on all the islands, it is a game for just a few players, which can be played anywhere, often out on the street in the evening or under the spreading mango tree with a tot of rum or a beer. You will rarely see women playing out on the street, but they are keen competitors too. It is a game that requires very little investment in equipment and can be played anywhere. Any sturdy, flat table will do, and all the better if you can score on it with chalk.
Dominoes is not just a social event, however. Played at club level it becomes a serious competitive sport with league matches. The World Council of Domino Federations (WCDF) is headquartered in Barbados (the word “World” is a slight misnomer, as the Caribbean dominates and Canada and the United States are the only other member countries, but the council aims to encourage wider membership). The WCDF has eight disciplines covering three-hand and four-hand dominoes: team four-hand, four hand pairs, male and female three-hand, king and queen domino, mixed pairs and female pairs. Got that?
The week-long World Domino Championship, held every other year since 1998 (it was held annually from 1991 to 1998), has been won by Barbados more times than any other country. Dominica has won a couple of times but St Lucia is Barbados’ main rival, having won the title five times to Barbados’ eight. Antigua hosted the 2008 Championship, St Lucia that of 2010, Florida was the venue for the tournament in 2012, and Barbados in 2014.
There is a campaign for dominoes to be an Olympic sport, but organizers face an uphill battle achieving the required standards. It could be many years yet before competitors are considered athletes, subject to strict anti-doping rules, however agile their minds are. Currently, club rules specify no eating, no drinking, and no talking once the game commences, but that’s it.
Dominoes originated in China, where legend has it that a soldier invented the game to entertain troops waiting to go into battle. The tiles were made of ivory and are still affectionately called “bones.” Brought to Venice in the 18th century by Chinese traders, the black and white tiles reminded Italians of the hoods of Dominican monks, and the nickname “Domini” was coined. The new parlor game of Venice and Naples soon spread across Europe to Britain and from there to the Caribbean via the sugar and slave trade.
Helping children to get ahead
Dominoes are used in schools to help with cognitive development and improve children’s mathematical skills. In the Caribbean it is a point of reference when islanders meet each other for the first time. Confident in their own abilities they are keen to challenge anybody to a game, wherever they are. Even Dr Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, is proud to be an honorary member of the WCDF, convinced that he is a better player than anyone else. And who would want to argue with the prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines?
A well-worn domino table testifies to the game’s popularity.
A game of schoolboy cricket, Speightstown, Barbados.
Barbados Tourism Authority
The European factor
European influence has marked the Caribbean since the first Spanish expeditions, but in the Eastern Caribbean the dominant nations were Britain, France, and, to a lesser degree, Holland. Their imprint is still clearly to be seen in the cricket pitches of Barbados, the haute cuisine of Martinique, and the gabled warehouses of Curaçao. But with the exception of a handful of left-over colonial outposts, the days of European rule are long gone, and it would be hard to see in any Caribbean territory a miniature imitation of the old metropolises.
Europeanness has merged into Africanness, the set of languages, customs, and beliefs that came to the Caribbean with the millions of slaves across the “middle passage.” Surviving the culture shock of slavery and the imposition of colonial values, African influence is stubbornly omnipresent: in rural housing, agricultural techniques, food, music, and dance, as well as belief systems such as the Yoruban Orisha or Shango faith, and the syncretic Spiritual Baptist (Shouter). In modern town centers, this heritage is not so obvious, but in fishing villages or farming communities it is unmistakable.
Creole culture values freedom above all else - and freedom includes the right to live life at your own pace.
Add to this the sights, sounds, and flavors of the Indian subcontinent, characterized by Hindu temples and prayer flags, and local variants on curry, and the creole mix begins to take shape. Other ingredients are important too; more recent migrants from China, Madeira, and Africa have preserved elements of their respective cultures, and few islands are without an influential group of Syrian or Lebanese-descended people. But perhaps most important is the constant contact with North America and its cultural exports.
In the French islands they have a word for it: créolité. It is what sets Caribbean people apart from other cultures, what makes island life distinctive and unique. It also implies a blending process, an ability to absorb influences and shape them into something different - it’s a dynamic process, one that never stays still, and one that perhaps accounts for the bursting vitality of the region’s culture.
Creole languages are widely spoken across the Caribbean and are a complex cocktail of linguistic elements. They all use West African grammatical structures and mostly European vocabulary. In Martinique and Guadeloupe (and to a lesser degree, St Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, and Trinidad), French provides the basis for the local creole, with traces of English and Spanish. But don’t expect to understand it even if your French is fluent.
A Creole restaurant in Mayreau, The Grenadines.
Words of wisdom
In Barbados, general conversation is peppered with wise old sayings especially in the rural areas. Here are a few you may hear:
Hansome don’ put in pot - sustained effort is needed to achieve anything worthwhile.
News don’ lack a carrier - there is always someone to pass on gossip.
Two smart rats can’ live in de same hole - two tricksters won’t get on together.
Goat head every day better than cow head every Sunday - it is better to be treated reasonably well all the time than have first-class treatment some of the time.
Head en’ mek fuh hat alone - use common sense.
Pretty-pretty things does fool li’l children - superficial things impress superficial and naive people.
Ole stick o’ fire don’ tek long to ketch back up - old love affairs can soon be revived.
A eyeful en’ a bellyful - just because you can see it, it doesn’t mean you can have it (said by women to men).
De higher de monkey climb, de more ’e show ’e tail - the more you show off, the more exposed your faults become.
De las’ calf kill de cow - taking the same risk too often can have disastrous consequences.
Fisherman never say dat ‘e fish stink - people never give bad reports about themselves.
Creole was spoken among slaves from widely differing backgrounds in Africa and so combines a multitude of different linguistic sources. Guadeloupean creole, for instance, contains the English-descended kònbif (corned beef) and djòb (job) as well as such African-inspired words as koukou-djèdjè (hide and seek) and zanba (devil).
Without doubt, the most eclectic creole is papiamentu, spoken in some of the Dutch islands, but principally in Curaçao. From there it spread more widely throughout the region via the men from many different islands who worked in the oil refineries. This language has had a magpie tendency to take words from wherever it could: Dutch, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and some African sources. The result can be baffling when heard but strangely familiar when seen in written form, especially if you know some Spanish. Pan means bread and awa means water (pan and agua in Spanish), while kaya is not very far from calle (street) or aki from aqui (here). The English speaker may recognize motosaikel (motorcycle).
School children in St-Martin.
St Maarten Tourist Bureau/Claude Cavalera
A choice of worship
If linguistic ingenuity is a characteristic of Caribbean societies, then so too is religious feeling. Driving through small villages in Barbados or Antigua you would be excused for thinking that churches outnumbered potential parishioners. The profusion of church groups throughout the region is nothing short of spectacular, ranging from established Anglicans and Roman Catholics to the new generation of Pentecostals and other evangelical sects. Church-going on a Sunday morning is a serious business, as you will soon notice from the sheer activity on country roads and village streets as people in their Sunday best head for their chosen service.
The common language of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao is papiamentu - a combination of dialects with no fixed spelling - which is used for newspapers, books, and debates in parliament.
Religion, like language, is a living example of creole adaptability. The slave owners may have only half-heartedly imposed Christianity on their slaves, but the people responded enthusiastically, soon creating an independent tradition of preaching and self-help. Many social institutions - youth clubs, credit schemes, educational facilities - are intimately linked to the churches.
But Caribbean people have also given Christianity their own emphases and influences; in some cases religious practices from Africa were mixed in with the teachings of the testaments to produce local faiths. Trinidad’s Shango, for instance, is a cult made up of African traditions blended with elements of Roman Catholic and Baptist Christianity.
In other cases, African belief systems have remained more or less unadulterated. Obeah, a form of sorcery originating in West African folklore, is still widely believed in throughout the islands, although few people will admit to it. Similar to Haitian voodoo practices, it can involve the use of magic spells and exotic potions either to cause harm to others or to seek cures for all sorts of problems. The Obeahman or Obeahwoman is still a figure who merits some considerable respect, not to say fear, in the community.
The Rastafari movement
Although originating in Jamaica, the Rastafari movement has spread throughout the Lesser Antilles, and is typical of the synthetic development of religious ideas. Its adherents, in fact, regard it as a way of life rather than a religion. A mix of literal Old Testament reading and African mysticism, it seeks to right the wrongs suffered by black people across the world by reuniting them in the promised land of Ethiopia.
Ras Tafari was the name of the late Emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1974), who is revered as a god by members of the movement. Not all of its adherents believe in a real return to Africa, but most are attracted by a lifestyle that is both rebellious toward authority and stringently devoted to a cause.
Duppies, or ghosts, are kept out of the house at night by sand left on the doorstep as, before entering, they must count every grain - an impossible task even for a ghost to perform before dawn.
The Rastafari movement has made its mark in all parts of the Lesser Antilles.
Diversity and tolerance
The Indo-Caribbeans are also in evidence through their religion. In islands such as Trinidad and Guadeloupe, where indentured immigration was greatest after abolition, the landscape is dotted with Hindu temples, adorned with images of Krishna, Shiva, or Rama. Prayer flags flap outside village houses or amidst clumps of banana or bamboo, and Indian communities celebrate feast days, such as Hosay, Phagwa (celebrating the arrival of spring), and Diwali (the Hindu Festival of Lights), with traditional music and dancing. Mosques add another dimension to the religious landscape, and Eid-ul-Fitr, celebrating the end of Ramadan, is an important occasion in Trinidad.
It is a tribute to local tolerance that such a heady mix of religious faiths has rarely produced friction between differing practitioners. The established churches used to campaign against African religion, denigrating it as “superstition” or “black magic,” but that is largely a thing of the past. The US-inspired evangelicals may be inclined to preach against Obeah and its ilk, but their message is not widely followed.
This tolerance extends to many walks of life and may explain why the Eastern Caribbean islands, although poor and deprived by some definitions, have not witnessed the social strife that experts predicted in the transition toward independence (but for more information, click here for more on Caribbean attitudes toward, and laws concerning, homosexuality, one area to which very little tolerance is extended).
It is always dangerous to generalize about any society, and stereotypes can be condescending, even when well-intentioned. Yet terms like “laid-back,” known as “liming” on the islands, contain a grain of truth about local attitudes to life and personal relations, suggesting with some accuracy a general distaste for unnecessary stress and conflict.
The darker side of life
While the Caribbean islands may be blessed with many things, life is not always a bed of roses - especially for those who face discrimination.
Tolerance does not extend to every sector of society in the Caribbean. Religious groups, and therefore much of the population, are notoriously homophobic, particularly in the British Commonwealth countries, still adhering to Victorian legislation criminalizing homosexual acts; and there is no cohesive system of human rights monitoring. Gay tourists will rarely be discriminated against, as long as they do not display in public acts of affection that might offend local citizens, but a Trini gay man will face “battyman” insults if not outright violence.
There is little political will to reform legislation and in a recent UN resolution to condemn arbitrary killings on the basis of identity features, nearly all Commonwealth Caribbean countries voted to exclude the category of “sexual orientation.” The only voice to speak out so far is that of the prime minister of St Kitts and Nevis, Dr Denzil Douglas, who urged fellow political leaders to review discriminatory legislation, but has not so far done so in his own country. The move is linked to securing finance for HIV/AIDS prevention, as funding agencies will not allow access to treatment programs until homosexuality is decriminalized.
Living with HIV
The Caribbean has the second-highest prevalence of living with HIV in the world after Sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the Lesser Antilles are not as badly infected as, say, the Bahamas (3 percent) or Jamaica (1.7 percent); but high rates are seen in Trinidad and Tobago (1.5 percent) and Barbados (1.4 percent). Contrary to popular belief, the principal route of transmission is heterosexual sex, much of it associated with prostitution. More than half of people living with HIV in the Caribbean are women, vulnerable due to gender inequality, sexual taboos, early initiation to sexual acts, and economic need. Nevertheless, it is likely that the proportion of new infections from sex between men is higher than figures show: men get overlooked because homophobia has led to denial and under-reporting.
Death in paradise
Crimes against tourists are rare, but receive huge publicity when they occur. The murder of a newlywed couple in their hotel room in Antigua, the shooting of a 14-year-old cruise ship passenger caught in the crossfire of gang warfare in St Thomas, or the rape of two women on a beach at night in St Lucia, are broadcast worldwide. Theft from hotel rooms and rental villas is more common but is under-reported to avoid alarming the tourist industry. Attacks and robbery of cruise ship passengers on tours are posted on websites as a warning to future visitors. So powerful is this media attention that cruise lines do not hesitate to withdraw an island from their itineraries if they think including it will damage their business.
The high rates of murder in Jamaica and Trinidad are legendary, but drugs-related crime means the rates in the USVI are also high. Over 50 percent of the cocaine shipped from South America to the US and Europe passes through the Caribbean and St Thomas sits on a crossroads, with drugs coming from the south and guns from the north. Gangs, “posses” in the Caribbean, flourish in times of economic recession, especially around the drug trade where there are battles over local distribution networks.
The more prosperous islands are the safest for tourists. Top of the table in the region are Montserrat, St-Barths, the BVI, Bonaire, and Dominica. The majority of visitors, just like the islanders themselves, take reasonable precautions with their property and personal security, and have no problems at all.
Cocaine seized off the coast of Martinique.